Eritreans in Israel: Long neglected, divided amongst themselves and dividing society

A look at the community that makes up the majority of African migrants in Israel, many of them saying they are fleeing a brutal dictatorship

African asylum seekers and activists protest against plans to deport migrants at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on March 24, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
African asylum seekers and activists protest against plans to deport migrants at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on March 24, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

On Saturday, Tel Aviv saw unprecedented, chaotic violence between rival groups of Eritrean migrants, in a fight split along lines of supporters and opponents of the country’s autocratic regime.

Tens of thousands of Africans streamed into Israel from Egypt in 2005-2012, many fleeing wars and repressive regimes in their home countries. A majority settled in south Tel Aviv.

The Africans, mainly from war-torn Sudan and dictatorial Eritrea, began arriving in Israel through its porous border with Egypt, after Egyptian forces violently quashed a refugee demonstration in Cairo and word spread of safety and job opportunities in Israel. Tens of thousands crossed the desert border, often after enduring dangerous journeys.

Israel initially turned a blind eye to their influx and many took up menial jobs in hotels and restaurants. But as their numbers swelled to a high of about 60,000, there was a backlash, with growing calls to expel the new arrivals. Israel completed a border barrier in 2012 that stopped the influx.

Eritreans make up the majority of the some 30,000 African asylum-seekers in Israel today, likely numbering around 17,000.

Most of them say they fled danger and persecution from a country known as the “North Korea of Africa” with forced lifetime military conscription in slavery-like conditions. The nation on the Horn of Africa has one of the world’s worst human rights records, and asylum-seekers say they fear death if they were to return.

President Isaias Afwerki, 77, has led Eritrea since 1993, taking power after the country won independence from Ethiopia in a long guerrilla war. There have been no elections, there’s no free media and exit visas are required. Many young people are forced into military service with no end date, human rights groups and United Nations experts say.

Reds vs. Blues

Though most Eritreans in Israel say they are seeking refuge from the regime, the government in Asmara does have some supporters in the country as well.

The chaos on Saturday broke out over an official Eritrean government event for its supporters in Tel Aviv, marking the 30th anniversary of the current ruler’s rise to power.

Opponents of the regime, decked in blue, arrived on the scene to demonstrate against supporters, who wore red. The rallies soon devolved into intense violence, with over 150 injured, 15 of whom were in serious condition. Some 30 cops were hurt as well. The chaos lasted for several hours.

Police were unprepared for the intensity of Saturday’s protests and subsequent clashes. Authorities had been aware of the clashing events, and officers had spread out to secure them, but were caught off guard by the chaos, leading some to use live fire in extreme cases.

Some anti-regime activists said they’d warned officials of the danger of violence, but said police had failed to take the matter seriously.

Police arrested dozens of rioters throughout the day, and further arrests were likely as authorities tracked down instigators and perpetrators of violence.

On Channel 12 on Saturday evening, commentators noted that supporters of the regime could potentially be sent home as their lives would not be in danger, but that Israel has avoided checking and properly processing migrants and their asylum requests, as it doesn’t want to be forced to grant refugee status to those who may, in fact, deserve it.

Anti-Eritrean government activists, left, clash with supporters of the Eritrean government, in Tel Aviv, Israel, September 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

A cold shoulder from Israel

Asylum-seekers have been met with antipathy by successive Israeli governments, and face an uncertain future as the state has acknowledged refugee status only in a minuscule number of cases and has led ongoing efforts to make life difficult for them or to deport them outright.

On the right, the prevailing view is that the Africans are economic immigrants, with many referring to them as “infiltrators.”

“They aren’t refugees,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself said at a cabinet meeting in 2017. “Or at least most of them aren’t. Most of them are looking for jobs.”

Government and Knesset efforts to force migrants out have been repeatedly struck down or limited by the High Court of Justice, which has said a solution in line with international norms must be found.

The migrants’ presence has long divided the country. Their supporters say Israel, a country founded upon the ashes of the Holocaust and built up by Jewish refugees, should welcome those seeking asylum.

Opponents claim the migrants have brought crime to the low-income southern Tel Aviv neighborhoods where they have settled.

The issue is oft-cited by supporters of the government’s judicial overhaul as an example of court overreach in defiance of public will, while opponents of the overhaul cite the same decisions as proving the court’s key role in protecting human rights.

File: African asylum seekers and human rights activists protest against deportation in Tel Aviv, February 21, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Proponents of the government’s legal overhaul say the migrants are a major reason the plan must move ahead.

In 2018, Netanyahu, then also the prime minister, announced a landmark deal with the United Nations to resettle abroad at least half of the African migrants seeking asylum in his country, but suspended the move within hours and later canceled it after intense criticism from the right for agreeing to let some remain.

Related op-ed, from our archive: How Netanyahu turned victory into all-around defeat in African migrant crisis

Under international law, Israel cannot forcibly send migrants back to a country where their life or liberty may be at risk. As it cannot send them home, Israel has given the Sudanese and Eritreans legal permission to stay, via a status called “conditional release,” which affords only the most basic of civil rights. The Interior Ministry has refused to grant them the more robust temporary residence status, which comes with an identity card that enables one to properly function in most walks of life.

File: An outdoor scene in south Tel Aviv. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)

The refusal to grant temporary residency status is part of what appears to be an attempt to make sure African migrants are unable to get too comfortable in Israel and in many cases want to leave. Other steps toward the same goal taken by successive governments toward this end have been curbed or struck down by the High Court.

One such move was to jail migrants arriving from Africa, first at Saharonim Prison and later at the specially built, now-closed Holot Detention Center, both in the Negev Desert in southern Israel. Another, in 2018, was to try to send them to other African countries in a bid to placate veteran Israelis living in south Tel Aviv who wanted their African neighbors out.

File: Detained African migrants standing outside the Holot detention center, located in Israel’s southern Negev desert near the Egyptian border, February 4, 2018. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

The Associated Press and Sue Surkes contributed to this report.

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